Monday, August 22, 2011

Pig skin braciole

Hey, wait a minute. Where do you think you're going? Come back here!

Okay, so it's a rolled up, tied down, funky-ass-looking piece of pig skin.

For eating, yes. In red sauce.

No, I'm not kidding.

Of course it tastes good. What do you think I'm running here?

I was at Frank & Sal over in Bensonhurst, and, well, there it was right in front of me. What was I supposed to do? NOT throw it inside the cooler with all the other stuff that I was transporting back to Maine?

You really do not know me at all, do you?

It had been a long time since I'd made these braciole (the singular is braciola, if you wondered) and so I was pretty hot to get going on them. These are the two pieces of skin that were in the package. They have been rinsed under cool water and patted dry with paper towels.

Recipes vary wildly for these braciole (technically the term for rolled thin slices of beef, but adopted to mean rolled just about anything in Italian-American culture). In addition to a variety of herbs and seasonings, my mother always included whole hard-boiled eggs in the filling. I saw someone recently use pine nuts and raisins even! Right here you have your freshly grated cheese (a mix of Romano and Reggiano), chopped garlic, fresh parsley, salt, ground black pepper and breadcrumbs. The breadcrumbs are entirely optional; in fact, I rarely use them. If you are making the braciole for the first time (you are planning on making them, right?), you may want to skip the breadcrumbs.

Once you have mixed all that stuff thoroughly, lay down a light coating on the inner side of the pig skin.

Roll it up nice, like so.

And then commence to tying.

Once you're finished tying, drop each braciola into a simmering pot of tomato sauce. 

What! You don't have a sauce working? Here's a recipe that works for me every time. (If you use this recipe, add the braciole at the same time you add the tomatoes.)

It takes a good couple hours for the pig skin to cook properly, but longer won't hurt it either. (Oh, and unless you enjoy the texture of cooked string, allow me to suggest taking a scissor to these babies and removing the tie-downs before serving.)

Look, I know this sounds like one weird-ass thing to put into your mouth. Believe me, I get it. I wouldn't even go near the stuff for years and years and years. And then more years after that.

But it really is a very, very tasty dish. Not only that, I'm pretty certain that the braciole enhance both the flavor (richer) and character (silkier) of the sauce they are cooked in.

Would it kill you to give it a try?


Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Fava & cheese salad

I'm pretty sure this will be the shortest thing that I have ever written. 

So, you got your fava beans — your raw fava beans. Since they are not terribly young favas (which I like to keep intact) you extract the beans from their outer layer of skin.

Toss them together with a good extra virgin olive oil, a good bit of chopped hard Italian cheese, salt and freshly ground pepper. On the cheese, I use genuino Romano (produced only in Rome, and not in great quantity) for this salad, but it is difficult to find, and so any good Romano-style cheese that you enjoy should do.

And I am finished scribbling now.

Oh, wait. An extremely hard-to-please associate of mine went positively pazzo over this absurdly simple salad. Just sayin.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

X Ray Burns makes a meatball

I used to fly a lot, but not so much anymore. The place I travel to the most is New York, and that's drivable. (Keep this to yourself, but my fastest time is four hours and ten minutes, including two pit stops. That's 325 miles; do the math.)

Two men accompany me on all of these trips. I have known them for over two decades, spent thousands of hours in their company, and, as you might imagine, know many details of their personal and professional lives.

Odd, then, that we have never shared a meal together.

Or, for that matter, spoken.

They are radio performers, "airmen" as I prefer. Their names: Glen Jones (real, so far as I am aware) and X Ray Burns (not so). Their platform: Aptly, The Glen Jones Radio Programme Featuring X Ray Burns, broadcast live on Sundays from noon til 3 p.m. on WFMU 91.1 FM in New Jersey.

They are a fearsome duo, these two. Both in makeup and appearance. The uninitiated could be easily fooled to reject them as misanthropic oddballs or, worse, aimless clowns who might do better to stink up the nearest ginmill than the public's airwaves.

Such a stance would be both harsh and unfortunate. I have introduced many a discerning ear to the broadcast, and none has failed to appreciate what is surely among the most eclectic bits of disc-spinning you will encounter.

Name a radio program that more seamlessly melds the work of, to name but a few, Tom Jones, Talking Heads, Mendelssohn, Morrissey, Elvis, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Bowie, Beethoven, The Bee Gees, Cheap Trick, Springsteen, Harold Melvin, Jim Carroll, William Shatner (yes, that one), and of course Sinatra.

Don't bother trying, because there isn't one.

Jonesy, as he is known, and Burns must be aware that their style of radio is not for all. The lifelong friends spend much of their three-hour weekly time slot not playing music but riffing on the most esoteric, nonsensical, freakishly strange and often preposterous topics you can imagine.

Burns is the provocateur here. A learned, if not overly schooled fellow, he is equally adept at dissecting complex scientific and political theory as proffering his views on myriad, shall we say, less than sensible topics. Do not get X Ray started on the subject of the giant robots that lay in wait to execute their violent, inevitable plan to conquer our planet. Or, for that matter, how a certain New York news anchor (Ernie Anastos if you must know) is obsessed with seeing to it that Burns expires, in the harshest possible way that can be arranged.

Regular listeners, I am pretty certain, tune in as much for the (usually entertaining) banter as the music. Which says a lot, knowing how satisfying the music can be.

No doubt you are wondering what any of this has to do with a food blog such as this one.

It has nothing to do with it. Except, of course, that Burns happened to mention a certain Mister Meatball on the air recently, and I thought it might be fun to share the snippet with all of you. It is only a minute and forty-five seconds long and can be heard by clicking the triangle on the left below.

I was driving on I-84 in Connecticut when I heard this. Luckily the traffic was light. I laughed so hard that the car, which had been in the center lane when Burns uttered the words "my buddy Mister Meatball," moved completely into the right lane pretty much in an instant.

You may have noticed the mention of spring approaching. That's because I wasn't listening to a live broadcast. Ever since moving to Maine I have stockpiled MP3 files of the shows, available off of FMU's archive page, and listen to them as time permits (sorry, Jonesy). This particular episode was broadcast in mid-June but I did not happen upon it until just recently. You can imagine my surprise. But for a Facebook "friendship" begun only weeks before this aired, I had had no dealings with X Ray Burns whatsoever. None. Hell, even after we became Facebook friends (I initiated, not he), I believe we only had one minor encounter prior to this show, and it was so minor I can't remember what it was about.

I would like to think that Burns enjoys the blog, and that that is why he mentioned it to his friend Jones. If that is so, then I am pretty damned pleased. Thankful, too, that I might have managed to reciprocate, if only slightly, for the good times he has given to me throughout all of these years.

Who knows, maybe we'll even get to enjoy a couple of meatballs together one day.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Flight of the burrata

If you do not count the wine and the olive oil, dinner last night consisted of just two items: bread and cheese. The bread, an excellent olive loaf, was gotten from the Standard Baking Company here in Portland. For the cheese, there was a bit more travel involved.

See, I drove back from Queens yesterday morning, a trip designed to celebrate my brother Joe's birthday in gluttonous fashion (a success, I might add; I'm still stuffed). Just behind the driver's seat and next to the dog was a cooler. Inside the cooler was, among other things, a plastic container holding a ball of burrata wrapped in green leaf-like plastic and immersed in whey. I bought the cheese in Brooklyn on Saturday, but the day before that it was in the burrata-making capital of the world, the Puglia region of Italy.

I don't know why but this cheese has attracted quite the following of late. In the past few months alone, and right here in Maine, I have sampled burrata from both a California cheesemaker and, more recently, one in Vermont. Why it has taken so long for the cheese to draw attention here in the U.S. I cannot say. A well-made burrata is one of the finest things that you will ever eat.

Basically, burrata is a ball made of thinly stretched mozzarella on the outside and a mixture of curd and fresh cream on the inside. Though it used to be made with milk from water buffalo, now it's mostly cow's milk that is used. (Traditionally burrata is wrapped in the leaves of the asphodelus plant, not the plastic you see above.) 

In Italy burrata is eaten within a day or two of its manufacture. Though the cheese I bought on Saturday would have been okay to eat for about a week, I wanted to have at it as soon as I got home, which would put it at just three days from the time it was made.

To make things interesting I decided to do a little cheese flight of my own. I stopped by my local Italian grocery and picked up a burrata made in Vermont, from Maplebrook Farm in Bennington, to taste side-by-side with the Italian version. Maplebrook takes some pride in its hiring of an Italian cheesemaker to make its burrata, and I have found the product to be pretty good since becoming available up here a few months ago. 

The cheese on the left is from Italy (via D. Coluccio & Sons in Brooklyn), the one on the right from Vermont. Other than the shape you'd be hard pressed to tell the two apart at this point. It's when you cut into them that the differences become very apparent.

This is the cheese from Puglia. The outside layer of mozzarella is thin and delicate, the inside rich and voluptuously creamy. Look at how that rich, unctuous cream oozes from the ball when it's cut open. Taste? It's like eating thick cream-flavored velvet. There is just absolutely nothing like it. 

Here is the Vermont-made cheese. Different story entirely. The outer shell of mozzarella is much stiffer and more chewy than the Italian cheese. The center, though moist and creamy, is far more solid as well. The creaminess factor is entirely different. Not only does cream not ooze out; whatever moisture is released is much more whey-like. As for the taste, it is a little on the sour side (but in a good way), and not nearly as luscious.

This is how I eat burrata, topped with a good extra virgin olive oil and some sea salt and fresh ground pepper. The cheese shown here is the one from Puglia, and so I guess you now know which of the two I preferred.

Some things are worth going out of your way for.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Zucchini fritters

I think we're gonna need a bigger frying pan.

The zucchini plants have taken over the garden. I cannot possibly keep up. Already, just three plants have produced dozens of zukes. And many more are on the way. If you are local, and enjoy the green things, you would be doing me a tremendous kindness by raiding my plot of earth and taking some of the things off my hands.

What, you thought I was kidding?

Anyhow, here's something to ponder as you're making your way to the garden. They're zucchini fritters that I've made a bunch of times, and usually they turn out pretty well.

You start by shredding some zukes with your instrument of choice.

Then toss the stuff into a colander and lightly salt it. There are four cups of shredded zucchini here, and I always use Kosher salt.

Put a plate on top of the zucchini and weight it down for a couple of hours. The idea here is to drain out most of the water that's in the zukes.

I don't just let the weighted plate do all the work. Several times while I'm waiting I will toss the zucchini by hand and then manually press down on the plate to remove as much moisture as possible.

To dry it out even further I go a couple rounds with paper towels.

After which, the four cups of zucchini winds up being around two-thirds of a cup, or less. (The liquid you see is about two cups, and it's not even all of what leeched out of the zukes.)

In a bowl you put the zucchini, an egg, a good dose of grated cheese (Pecorino here), maybe a tablespoon each of flour and breadcrumbs, and salt and pepper.

Mix it all up and you're ready to go.

It's important that the oil (olive oil here) is very hot before dropping the fritters into the pan. These were only put in about thirty seconds ago and you can see that they're ready to be turned.

This batch turned out pretty good, but fritters are the kind of thing that can go either way. My advice is to be patient, and practice.

We've got plenty of zukes to go around. Remember?